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Events this week mark five years since Pittsburgh synagogue shooting

 Five stars with names of people are next to flowers.
Katie Blackley
90.5 WESA

The anniversary of any tragic event always carries a certain weight, but this year’s commemoration marking five years since the Pittsburgh synagogue shooting will take on additional significance, according to Maggie Feinstein, the director of the 10.27 Healing Partnership.

Five years is a long enough time for people to take stock, she said. “Usually every five years is the time we take that step back and say, ‘Wow, I can't believe that was five years ago.’” she said. “And we measure time a little bit against this major moment in our life. And what's changed? What hasn't changed?”

The armed attack by a white supremacist on Oct. 27, 2018 at the Tree of Life synagogue in Squirrel Hill left 11 worshipers from three separate congregations — Tree of Life, New Light and Dor Hadash — dead. In June, a federal jury convicted the now-51-year-old gunman of 63 counts including hate crimes; the same jury sentenced him to death on Aug. 2.

One of the biggest changes this year for many of the survivors of the attack is that the gunman’s trial no longer looms before them. Many of them felt that they couldn’t speak openly out of fear that it would disrupt the gunman’s trial.

Planning this year’s event felt a little less heavy, according to Carol Black, a survivor who hid in a closet and who lost her brother during the shooting. “I can only, of course, speak for myself, but I think that we just felt a little bit more free,” she said. “I think that's probably the best way of putting it. I felt a little bit more free.”

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Black said the planning committee asked U.S. Attorney Eric Olshan to be the keynote speaker at the event, which will take place at Schenley Park Friday at 3 p.m. She said Olshan developed a strong relationship with the survivors and families of victims during the months-long trial, which temporarily delayed planning for this year’s commemoration.

The commemoration will be similar to the ones they’ve had every year (except the first year during the COVID pandemic), Black said. Family members will light a candle for each of the 11 victims. Survivors from the three congregations who were worshiping that day will present readings. Local leaders will pay their respects.

Children’s art work from eight different schools will also again be displayed. Middle school students from the Kentucky Avenue School in Shadyside created individualized pieces of art for each of the 11 lives lost. Stephanie Shropshire, the art teacher, said her students didn’t want to just do a mosaic, so they researched Jewish traditions and learned that it’s customary to put stones on graves instead of flowers. So, each student researched the lives of those killed during the shooting and created a custom stone for them.

Shropshire herself knew more than half of the victims and some of her students used her stories for information. Shropshire remembers that Cecil Rosenthal used to ask her grandmother for a Diet Coke when he was waiting at the bus stop. So, Cecil’s stone has a Diet Coke and a bus, as well as a heart representing the “Love like the Boys” campaign that honors Cecil and his brother David.

Another student drew three roses on a rock to symbolize the three years left until Rose Mallinger — who was 97 at the time of the attack — would have turned 100.

This year’s commemoration will also feature students and musicians playing the “Violins of Hope,” many of which were instruments saved during the Holocaust and refurbished after the end of World War II. “It's amazing to me to think about the significance of resilience, sitting in a park, being able to hear the sound of these violins played by young people from Pittsburgh,” Feinstein said.

Anti-gun violence groups to hold storytelling event

In addition to Friday’s ceremony, several events will be held leading up to the anniversary. They include a storytelling event on Thursday hosted by Pittsburgh-area anti-gun violence groups.

“This year is five years and it's a meaningful marker. It's a long time for there to have been no legislative action on guns,” said Dana Kellerman, the policy director of Squirrel Hill Stands Against Gun Violence. “But that's where we are.”

Kellerman said this will be her group’s first foray into storytelling. In past years, they have held vigils and commemorations and lobbied for changes. But she thinks it’s important for everyone to sit down and reflect on their own relationship to gun violence in order to understand its broader context. And then she hopes to persuade people to use their personal stories to push for change.

The stories that are recorded during the event will be shared with the Pennsylvania Senate Judiciary Committee, Kellerman said, where two gun bills that have passed the Pennsylvania House are currently stalled. One of those bills would allow a judge to temporarily take away a gun from someone considered dangerous and another would tighten loopholes for which gun purchases require a background check.

Michael Golphin, the pastor of Deliverance Baptist Church in Wilkinsburg and a member of a clergy council co-sponsoring the event, said that he’s had to oversee too many funerals due to gun violence.

Golphin plans to record a story for the event about a time, two decades ago, when a pregnant 18-year-old woman showed up at his door at 1 a.m. She had been shot in the face with a shotgun. She and her baby ended up surviving, he said, although her boyfriend, who was also shot, did not survive. That night sparked Golphin’s continued involvement in anti-gun violence work, he said.

There will be a number of private video booths at the event where individuals can record their individual stories. Some will be able to record their stories into their phones or even write them down. Others will be able to tell their stories into a microphone in front of the whole group and those stories will be recorded as well.

Here’s a list of this week’s commemoration events:

Wednesday 10 a.m. to 2 p.m.: Day of healing and self-care will include art making, improv, sound bathing, acupuncture and trauma-informed yoga at the Jewish Community Center.

Thursday 6 p.m. to 8 p.m.: A storytelling event aimed at pressing for new gun laws put on by various partners including Squirrel Hill Stands Against Gun Violence at Rodef Shalom.

Friday at 8 a.m., 9 a.m. and 10 a.m.: Torah studies with various Jewish scholars and leaders.

Friday at 3 p.m.: Commemoration ceremony at Schenley Park including a candle-lighting, music played on violins rescued from the holocaust and keynote speaker U.S. Attorney Eric Olshan.

Sunday: Various volunteer opportunities including blood drives, stone paintings, cemetery clean-ups, a friendship circle, book backing for the Pittsburgh prison project and baking at Family House.

Oliver Morrison is a general assignment reporter at WESA. He previously covered education, environment and health for PublicSource in Pittsburgh and, before that, breaking news and weekend features for the Wichita Eagle in Kansas.